Why Our Tendency To Label People Is Wrong
Speaker: Dr. Harold J. Sala | Series: Guidelines For Living | When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” John 8:7
Philip Yancey tells how he once visited a prison, and observed that the men who were incarcerated there were caged like animals behind doors of steel, but what left the lasting impression on him was that over each door was a sign stamped in large black letters which read: Murderer, Rapist, Armed Robber, Child beater, and on and on. The strange thing about human nature is that we all try to package and label people, and in so doing, we trap them inside a box as certainly as though we slammed the steel door shut, pinning the sign overhead. Was that not the same rationale when a sign was affixed to the cross in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew reading, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews”?
There are hundreds of labels: political labels such as Socialist, Communist, Republican, Democrat, Activist, Radical and others. There are religious labels too: Calvinist, Armenian, Reformed, Dispensationalist, Charismatic, Orthodox, Neo‑ Evangelical, Fundamentalist and a few dozen more. It’s almost as though we could take a person, put a label on him, and cram him into a neat little package‑‑usually one which we would just as soon misplace. There are social labels too‑‑Liar, Cheat, Drunk, Thief, Hooker, Lesbian, Queer, Swinger and so forth. One mistake or failure‑‑especially if you are not too fond of a person‑‑and he is labeled.
Did you ever hear anyone say, “What else could you expect from him‑‑he’s always been a cheat.” I have heard parents try to excuse their children, or rather to single one out from the others, saying, “She always reacts like that…she’s been a liar since she was a child…you can never believe what she says.” The tragedy of labels‑‑especially in the social category‑‑is that our labels often tend to produce the kind of behavior we disdain and abhor. “He’s got bad blood in him‑‑gets it from his father’s side.” One woman told me this; speaking of her son as though some inherent tendency to do evil had been transmitted genetically.
I am not sure where we homo sapiens got our tendency to label and box other people, but it most certainly was not from Jesus. In His three years of public ministry Jesus encountered all kinds of people‑‑prostitutes, oppressed minorities, rural fishermen, businessmen, housewives and government officials. Yet in every case He accepted them on their own merit and received them each as a person of dignity and value, realizing that His power could make each person into a different individual.
To Matthew, Jesus said, “Follow me;” He didn’t say, “You filthy tax‑thief, come follow me and I’ll straighten you out.” He could have rejected the prostitute at the well of Samaria‑‑after all, others did‑‑but instead He forgave her. Today’s devotional is two‑fold: For you who feel labeled, realize that God forgives you and accepts you as you are now. He does not demand a do‑it‑yourself improvement program and then take you on after you have succeeded; but rather He says just “Follow me.” When a baby comes into the world, he bears only the label “created in the image of God,” and when we come into His presence, God sees no labels, only a child who needs forgiveness and healing from the Father.
The second thing is: be careful how you label and package people. Your label may be an iron‑clad strait‑jacket keeping somebody in the very slot that you disdain. Labels seldom really fit. As Phil Yancey says, “When I meet a person, I can either box him in by labeling or free him up by looking for the person of worth inside. The choice is mine.”
Resource reading: John 4:1-29